The Ultimate Guide Character Development

Character development is one of the most important aspects of storytelling. Your characters need to be three-dimensional, with vibrant personalities, realistic reactions to circumstance, and understandable motives. If you establish rules for how your characters operate based on your character development, they will feel more realistic and relatable to the reader. This will move you from a news story to a human interest story; from a novel to a hard-hitting crime novel. The sooner you develop your characters, the sooner you can start writing a story. Your primary characters should be fully developed by the time you start writing. However, secondary characters will evolve as you write. Your villain is a great character to develop in parallel with your protagonist. The best villain is one who fully evolves and grows as your story progresses. I like to develop the elements of my story and then plug them, with some changes, into another story. That way I learn the various elements of my story and develop my characters in two different stories. The key is to not start writing one of the stories until you are going in the right direction. That is why I suggest developing both your story and your characters in parallel.


Why Does Character Development Matter?

There are many reasons to bother with developing your characters. Without a strong character, your story will feel empty and underdeveloped. Like a pea pod without a pea, your audience won’t feel something at the core of your story or novel; it will be like pulling teeth to get your reader to finish reading your novel. But with a character that feels real and is complex and interesting, your readers will want to stick with your story to see what happens next. The creation of a character can be the most rewarding and difficult labour you will encounter. Like a thousand piece puzzle, your job is to obtain pieces of what could have happened to you or someone else to create a finished picture of a character.

Whether your character is well-developed or well-inspired, you need to figure out who you want that character to be. Your character needs to have three-dimensions, or facets to his personality made clear in your story and in your writing. Each area of your character development should have a dimension with a name, not just vague terminology, but a specific focal point. And let’s talk about how it should begin with your protagonist because it’s easier to do it here first (and easier to read because everyone needs a primary focus). Keep in mind, too, that the same technique pretty much applies to all the facets of your character development.

How To Create Strong Characters

Creating a strong character is one of the hardest things you can do as an author. After all, what is an author but a person who creates something from nothing? However, there are some tips to creating strong character development. For starters, write your character as if they are real. View your character as a real person; don’t look at their actions as plot-devices. How they react to a certain situation should be based on the situation and not just the plot. Even if your character has a certain magic power or skill that operates differently than the real world, look at the emotion and experiences that your character will face because of their different status. Are they the only one of their kind? Do they have a hard time finding acceptance? Perhaps they over-compensate and behave in a socially unacceptable manner? These are great themes that can be worked into your plot later. The core of every character is his/her struggle. Every character must have one, and how that struggle is resolved is what will strengthen or tear down the character’s bond to his/her nemesis; ally; or self. Look at any issue your character has, and see it as the core of their struggle. If it is not, drive a wedge into your skinny manuscript and let it break apart. You may even want to make a checklist for each of your characters. I like to look at my characters like a carpenter looks at a piece of lumber. The story is the blueprint. My most important tool in this analogy are a good sense of humor. Verifiability is the most important aspect to a clear expression of a character. If how the character reacts to any given situation or conflict is not stated properly, then the reader will become confused. This is especially true if you are doing the omniscient narrator style. What the point of view of the story determines, the character’s expression must obey.

Where Does Character Development Begin?

The strongest characters are those who seem like us in the ways that matter.

Before you start to work on your characters, you should know things that probably will not be part of their story, but define them enough about them to help their interactions seem realistic. For starters, where are they from? What are their religious affiliations? If either one causes a conflict, then it will be a good driving force for your character development. If your character is very introverted, where is he from? Does he seem out-of-place in a loud party? Is he built more for the swamps or the desert? Does he have great patience or does he need to move around a lot?

These same questions should be asked about the antagonist. If you are a realistic author who makes characters that resemble you, then the antagonist should be a mirror to the character traits your protagonist lacks. He should be smarter, taller, better looking, stronger, and more capable than your main character in every way. Fill him out, and fill with emotions that torment the heart of his character. What are his hobbies? What is his favorite food? Why is he collecting Star Wars bobble heads if he has no children on his birthday? Is he entranced with the possibility of love, and therefore obsessed with his own purpose in life?

How Will Character Development Intersect With Plot?

There is a plot method to the meaning of each character that will ultimately be touched upon in the grand finale. However, this plot will only materialize if the character becomes a catalyst for the story. The emotional climax of your story will depend on how the character overcomes himself, as written to fit into the plot development of your storyline. If the character stands in the background of the plot, then their presence should create a ripple effect. However, the character must have strong enough motivation that will move the plot forward if not develop it. Your character might not do anything, but he must actively be invested in the story. All investments, including those that are non-material, are carried out by people.

Beyond personality, where he is from, and his motivations, the stronger the character feels, the more you will love your story. Likewise, if you have a story that is more heavily character-driven, the stronger the conflicts and character development are, the more potent your story is. Idealist and romantic? Does sunlight make them happy? What is the epitome of good to them? Plot-driven and realistic? Does proper forward motion of the plot determine the path your characters take? What is more important to the character, reality or the fantasy?

Character Development: Protagonist

First things first, what is your protagonist? Who she is, where she comes from, what her ethnicity is, what her job, where she grew up, where she lives, what is her marital status; this all helps you to develop a character that is likely to resonate with your readers. If your leading lady is from the suburbs and grew up in a two parent family, you’ll have a much different opinion about her and her actions than if she’s from the streets and grew up through life on her own.

The Spine is whatever the main problem or conflict in your story is. Everything develops around this one central issue. This is the problem that should, hopefully, entice the reader to turn the page to see what happens. Without a strong spine to your story, your novel will languish like a lead balloon. Are there real obstacles to this problem? Without real obstacles to overcome, the path of your story will be boring and hard to cling to as you make your way through the novel. This is something that can really be assisted when you are having a problem with motivation, or with figuring out how to best develop your antagonist, either or both.

Character Development: Antagonist

First things first, who is the antagonist? In some cases, it may be a group or a nameless force of nature, and in other cases, I suppose it can be the protagonist herself. Real motivation is the key element to the development of your antagonist. Without a solid core problem, without a real difficult situation, you’ll be spinning your wheels. We’ve all done that before. Two-dimensional characters are a trait of poor development. Even if you’ve done your character development, are you showing all facets of your characters through your novel? How is your villain reflected in your protagonist? After all, don’t we cheer for a hero in books because he avoids being like his villain? Which brings us to characterization.

Character Development: Characterization

Characterization is your story lead’s actions. The protagonist walks like you should walk, looks like you should look, talks like you should talk. It brings your readers into an imaginative place, or a relatable one if you are writing a particular type of fiction, and allows the reader to relate to the character. Like the development of your characters, the way you deliver your character’s actions on the page can be quite varied. Some writers like to develop very different dialects or speech patterns while others prefer to keep a steady voice no matter how different the characters are. Regardless of which you do, remember that two-dimensional characters are a trait of poor development. How your characters talk to one another, fight, reason, and react is a crucial part of the overall development of your characters. We want the reader to not just view your character as a verbalization; we want them to take your character by the hand and feel emotion through the words you have written.

Character Development: Experience

Everyone is shaped by experiences. Made tougher or more emotional depending on what has happened. Let’s stop speaking of character development as facets no one can quite explain. What was that? Your character’s experience is how your character develops. Now this is defined by your  character’s past. And writers have been literary magicians for generations. When we speak of older periods, we toss around the word “period” when really, it is an era. Remember, our environment  (often measured by the tenor of society) affects our development. It can stress or alter our perceptions, as well as change the way we perceive the world. Consider the path of someone who grew up in a two-parent home, compare that character’s path to the path of someone who grew up in a turbulent home. How those two individuals would view society would be markedly different. They would react differently toward the same issues. This is another area where personal experience can drastically alter the course of a novel or story. Overall, being able to write a character that your audience identifies with helps to improve the quality of your writing. Character development is something that needs to be fine-tuned constantly, and it is a process (it takes time to develop a solid character) that will resonate with your writing for years.

Think About the Character as an Extension of Yourself

When you write a story, you want to look at your characters as alternate versions of yourself. When you see them in your story, you don’t want to see them as two-dimensional hordes or even supposed people; you want to see them as plausible reactions. Psychologists call this the  Theory of Perspective Taking. In their essence, character reactions could mean the difference between a solidly rooted written character and a floundering, unrealistic enemy that rests too heavily on the literary equivalent of Che murdered-him-with-my-teeth. This is what I mean by treating your antagonist as yourself. You don’t want to allow yourself to get to the slump of poor writing, so you’ll have to be the judge of whether your antagonist appears as a metaphorical suspect waiting at the end of a Metro line. Characters work primarily when they’re well rounded and you’re not simply treating them as unthinking characters to be dropped into the ending of your story and bumped off. Then the story is just about the thrill. But a story goes deeper than that. If it was just about murdering off an antagonist, most of us could watch slasher films. Instead, develop your characters with their own motivations separate from the desire to kill off your protagonists. Even if their motivation is to kill your protagonists. It’s more interesting to the reader to understand the motives behind a villain instead of just knowing that they are there to end your protagonist’s existence.

Do Your Research

Research is your friend. The more you do, the better your characterization will be. This is a logical progression, and you don’t need to hire an actor to record your character’s lines for you while you write (though that can prove most helpful). Simply allow your story’s characters to speak on your own preferences (one at a time, of course, because no one can write two people talking at the same time very well). As an example, read up on what-ever characteristics you think they should possess. Is your lead from a big or a small town? Figure out how that affects the way they act. Are they verbally expressive or reticent? Character development counts just as much with the inner self as it does for their outer personality. If you aren’t similar to the character you have in mind, you might want to explore Facebook Groups, interview people, and more to research the demographic. If your character is not from your culture, avoid writing their lines to match your own. Cultures aren’t one-dimensional entities   looking at a statistic, and neither should your world be. With red flags flying (and the flying literal, too), consider caution and ask yourself “Am I being shallow?” or worse, “Is this right?” Many of us have had someone we know or dated who had a very similar issue. Generally, that makes for very good character development.

Over to you!

Character development is a fundamental part of storytelling and novels. How you develop your characters is a methodology that is different for everyone. Yet, a well developed novel should reflect the strong foundation that character development was laid upon. It will stand the test of time and introduce your writing to a wider audience. Lists, statistics, and measurements are all subjective. They are helpful tips to help you develop characters, but every writer develops his own way. Just remember that whether it is to write better or to simply finish, character development has to be solid to move your audience to any reaction, good or bad.

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